Gender Neutral Calling

Gender Neutral Calling – Joe MacMahon


Gendered calling is calling by saying ‘the woman does this’ and ‘the man does that’.


The problems with gendered calling are:

  • Exclusion, where people feel like they can’t participate.
  • Erasure, where people feel like they can participate, but only if they pretend to be something they’re not.

There are a few groups of people who feel excluded or erased by gendered calling

  • Gay people, for whom dancing with a person of a different gender to their own is erasing their identity as gay.
  • Binary trans people (people who identify as trans men or trans women): frequently other dancers will misgender them and try to “correct” them by telling them to go in the other line, etc.
  • Non-binary trans people (people who identify as trans, but not men or women, e.g. genderqueer, genderfluid or agender people): having to choose to dance as men or as women is erasing their identity as non-binary.
  • Women, whose role in dances is almost always following rather than leading, and if they want to lead, they have to dance the men’s part, erasing their identity as women. Not all women feel this way, but a significant proportion do. These dances also reflect traditional harmful gender roles of dominant men and subservient women.

It’s easy to say that well, at our ceilidhs a lot of the time you see men dancing “women’s” parts and women dancing “men’s” parts, and that’s true. But a lot of these problems of erasure or misgendering are things which are a problem in wider society, and we should try and make our ceilidhs a safer space for LGBT people and women.


Over time we’ve had quite a few people ask us if we can start doing gender-neutral calling for them. In 2012/2013 (I forget which), LGBT committee held a ceilidh social for their members at one of our regular Friday night ceilidhs. They requested at the time that this was gender neutral, since gendered calling was exclusionary for pretty much everybody they represent. In the end, the feedback we got from that evening was overwhelmingly positive from everybody concerned.

Ollie tells me that we’ve had at least 2 requests from attendees for gender-neutral calling this year. Certainly all of my close friends who do ceilidh want it. Also, we just don’t know how many people we’re missing out on because of our gendered calling. It’s impossible to tell how many people came to one ceilidh, heard gendered calling and never came back again – for example I know several people who have said they wouldn’t join me at a ceilidh because of the gendered calling.

My point is that there is certainly a demand for it.


One of the main questions that gets raised at this point is how gender-neutral calling actually works. Callers are worried that they’ll forget, or that everybody will be confused, or that the dances just won’t work.

After chatting to callers myself, we came up with some really good ideas:

  • You can just call the dances without mentioning gender, using phrases like ‘the person opposite you’, ‘your partner’, ‘the person to your left’, or ‘the person to the right in your couple’.
  • You can substitute different names for the roles in the dance, for example ‘leader’ and ‘follower’.
  • Another idea that takes some planning is to have a bowl of green ribbons and a bowl of purple ribbons (CeilidhSoc colours!) at the entrance desk, everyone takes a ribbon and then you make couples with one of either colour.

Just mentioning that the roles don’t reflect the people dancing them – like saying ‘the men, or those dancing as men’ – isn’t enough though. It still ties into the problem of erasure (or pretending) as above; the only difference is that this time people think that pretending is fine.

A cool idea that I’ve just had is that we could run workshops for people who already call on how to call gender neutrally. This would help assuage people’s fears about changing their calling styles and allow us to train up new callers too!